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Myth, Reality and the Common Core

The Common Core has been a lightning rod for criticism for much of the past decade, and some of that criticism stems from myths or misconceptions about what the state standards represent. Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and FutureEd senior fellow, wondered what would happen if people were given the facts to refute these misconceptions. He and two educational psychologists, Gail Sinatra and Stephen Aguilar, found that when confronted with the facts, people were more likely to approve of the standards. FutureEd chatted with Polikoff about the findings.

Why did you decide to conduct this experiment on the Common Core?

My research for a long time has focused mainly on standards and accountability policy. I've been researching standards implementation for almost a decade now. And every year, USC Rossier and an organization called Policy Analysis for California Education, do a poll of Californians on current issues and education policies. One of the topics that we asked people about was the Common Core.

What was the response?

We actually asked questions on Common Core three or four years in a row, and we saw the same trend that other people have observed on other polls. Support went down over time, and when we asked about it in our 2015-16 poll, we saw that it was about a 50/50 split between support and opposition. We also found that the way that you phrase the question about Common Core really affected people's support for the standards.

What are the common misconceptions, and how did you determine them?

I study this issue pretty closely. I read up on what people are saying online, and I wrote questions for the original poll that I thought corresponded to the major misconceptions that I saw. Certainly the perception that the federal government required the standards, the perception that states had to adopt the standards as is and couldn't change anything about them, these were things that I was reading about on Twitter and popular blogs.

How did people’s perceptions changes when presented with the facts?

We wrote what's called a “refutation text” to address people's misconceptions, to correct their perceptions. And what we found was that this simple text was able to change people's conceptions about the standards, so it was able to reduce some of their misconceptions and increase their correct conceptions. This change spilled over to their support for the standards. We saw that support for the standards increased when people had more correct conceptions and fewer misconceptions.

What is a refutation text?

There are three parts. There's a statement of the misconception, as in “many people believe that that states were required to adopt Common Core by the federal government.” Then there's a direct refutation of the misconception: “In fact, people who have studied the adoption of Common Core believe that this is not true.” And then there's the evidence: “While the federal government encouraged states to adopt Common Core through the Race to the Top initiative, several states did not adopt the standards, and no state was required to adopt the standards.”

Historically, refutation texts have been used most frequently to address science misconceptions. One example is genetically modified foods, where people have tremendous misconceptions, or climate change—very controversial topics where a lot of people believe things that are not true.

Did this improvement in their perceptions last?

Certainly we saw a jump immediately. And then we followed up with the same people one week later without providing them the refutation text again, so they would just have been relying on their memory. And we found that indeed, again, their misconceptions were lower and their correct conceptions were higher, even a week after the intervention. Of course, we don't know how long these effects would persist, and that's an area that's worthy of future investigation.

So what should we take away from this? Should people who support the Common Core start a refutation campaign?

The implication for Common Core, in particular, is that there are just a lot of people who really have bad information. It’s probably spread in large part through social media. And what we found was that if you refute those misconceptions using this particular format—the refutation text format—it's better than just a standard informational text. So advocates might think about applying that format.

Are there broader implications for this?

To our knowledge, this is the first study that's ever applied a refutation text to an education policy. And you can imagine that there are other education policies where people have misconceptions or misinformation, off the top of my head, charter schools, all kinds of teacher-related policies. We think there is probably an opportunity for researchers to study the extent to which we can change the public's views on policy through correcting their misconceptions.

Would this strategy work for people who felt strongly for partisan reasons?

On average the people in our sample were quite neutral on Common Core, but that means we had strong opponents and strong proponents in the sample. In previous research, we’d found that partisanship (which we measured by views about President Obama) was a strong predictor of both views about the standards and also of misconceptions. In this research, we found that once we refuted and changed people’s conceptions about the standards, that the negative views on Obama no longer correlated with misconceptions. In short, our intervention directly reduced partisan effects on support for the standards.

[Read More: Yes Secretary DeVos, There is a Common Core]